Tag: cooking

A Tuscan Cooking Class

A Tuscan Cooking Class

We got up, went to the car, and travelled to Podere Marcampo, about 5.5km outside town, as we had a cooking class booked for much of the day. We arrived early, and had a little explore of the outside of the property.

The podere (farm) owners also run Del Duca restaurant in the heart of town.  The class was led by the somelier of the restaurant, who herself is a pretty good cook.  We were brought inside to their private quarters, and given a small cookbook and apron each (all of which we could take home with us).  It was explained to us that we would be making 5 things:

  1. Crusty, rustic bread;
  2. A soufflé of zucchini (courgette);
  3. Filled pasta with tomato sauce;
  4. Stuffed guinea fowl breast;
  5. Chocolate soufflé

The class itself was about 3 hours long, and I immediately wondered whether we’d be able to accomplish everything within the alotted time.  Towards the end of the class the instructor told us that they used to do one course after another, which led to time issues, but she had the timing now down to a fine art.  A little of the pre-measuring and prep had already been done, and ingredients gathered (all local, most 0km).  We would be doing a lot of the prep work, but largely observing during the actual cooking.  This was fine by me.  

The timetable, then, was a solid 3 hours, with only a short break about 80% of the way through to try their own vermintino (white wine variety), wild boar salami and capocollo (cured pork, a cut from the back of the neck).  The meats were sensational, and cured by the patriarch of the family.

For the zucchini soufflé, a full medium red onion was sliced and fried in a lot of extra-virgin olive oil to soften them.  This took about 10-15 minutes, during which time we sliced the zucchini and prepped the bread dough from scratch.  Unlike traditional Tuscan bread, we would be using salt – which is my preference.  It was my first attempt at making bread, and… yeah… it was a mediocre effort.

The dough was left to prove, and then we went back to the kitchen to deposit the zucchini slices into the onions, after the instructor had demonstrated that the onions had sufficiently softened.  One thing of note, was that I don’t think salt was used to extract the moisture from the onions, but water was squirted in every now and again.  Once the zucchini was in, then she used a mixture of salt and pepper (which they keep together in a single container to ensure consistency in seasoning). 

We went back out to make dough and filling for our ravioli.  It was an egg-pasta, and we made it from scratch, making use of an electric pasta maker (but only to flatten dough into sheets – we didn’t use any of the cutters).  The filling was the instructor’s nonna’s recipe – sweet ricotta with cinnamon and marjoram.  Niamh mixed that up – and we could have happily spent the afternoon eating that alone.  I noted that they had bought the ricotta, and left it drain for the guts of a day before using it.  An egg and a tablespoon of parmesan were used to bind.

The instructor’s mamma came in and demonstrated how to make various pasta shapes (largely using my dough!).  It’s easy when you know how.  We then made our own ravioli.  Not bad for our first attempts.  Once they were done and floured, we went back out to the kitchen to drain and coarsely mash the courgette – which we could have eaten as was!  

Our dough had proved, and we shaped it without further kneading, floured it and put in the oven.  Then the instructor set about making the tomato sauce.  This was all down to the quality of the ingredients.  They used their own small (pre-chopped) tomatoes, and aromatics, which cooked down quickly.  While they cooked, we had some salumi and white wine, and then were brought out to butterfly our guinea-fowl breasts (which had the skin on) and stuff them with sausage and wrap them in pancetta.  We then made a clever use of a two-tiered, tapered plumbing pipe to force the breasts into a net, ready for sealing.

The tomato sauce was ready, and we used a winding sluicer to smoothen the consistency of the sauce, and to ensure that no tomato skin was included.  We had a taste of the sauce, and I almost fell over it was so good.

The bread was also fully baked, and was left outside to cool.  Spinach was boiled for a minute, before being doused in cold water and drained, so it would keep its colour.

We then observed as the guinea-fowl was sealed in a pan – with olive oil enfused with garlic (which was removed when the enfusion was complete).  Aromatics, olives and white wine were added (the latter of which added serious steam!).  After about 5 minutes, the meat was taken out and left to breathe for a bit, while the sauce left in the pan cooked down and thickened.  It smelled yum.

While we were doing other prep, mamma had melted chocolate (70% Ecuadorian, I think) and butter (they use French butter, not Italian – Italian butter is a little lacking, sadly, but their cheese is killer!).  In went flour and sugar to the mix, and then egg yolks were added too.  The egg whites were vigorously whipped by our guest, until very stiff (enough to keep the whisk upright) in and then gently folded into the mix by Niamh.  I could cheerfully have buried my face in the mixing bowl when all was done.

While this was going on, I buttered and floured (semola flour only – so it wouldn’t join the mix, nor add its flavour to it) some aluminium cups.  We filled the cups with the mix when done – they would eventually be cooked in a Bain Marie (Bagna Maria in Italian, believe it or not) for 5-6 minutes.

Anyway, that was the end of the course.  We had prepped way more than we’d eat, so a lot of it would be used by the restaurant staff to feed themselves.  We were ushered out to the outdoor seating area while all our work was being cooked.

We ate Niamh’s bread (lovely!), before our first course came out.  Each savoury course was complemented by one of their own red wines.  

The first course was the zucchini soufflé, drizzled with a little olive oil.  Those of you who know me know that I’m not a fan of veg which goes a little ‘mushy’, preferring instead root and floret veg, served with a little crunch.  However, this dish was stunning.  Our instructor said that we should try it with potato and turnip, if I didn’t like zucchini – but I don’t have to; it was just beautiful!

The next was our own ravioli with the tomato sauce.  I usually skip tomato sauce-based dishes, but again I was shown up as a fool, as this was amazing.  The sweet pasta filling went perfectly with the almost sour tomato sauce, which had hints of all the aromatics and garlic – it was an intensely rich sauce. 

Our third course arrived (again with another wine) – the guinea-fowl breast, sliced.  I’d never had it before, and I hate to say it, but it tasted like chicken!  It was perfectly moist, and the sauce was fab.  The bird went well with both stuffing and coating and I could have had two of them!

Finally, we had the chocolate bomb soufflé, which was served with a bitter orange marmalade.  It was perfectly melty in the middle.  We made 15 of them, and might have yummied down 2 or 3 each had we been let.

What an amazing meal, in a wonderful, bucolic surroundings… in 30 degree heat!  The temperature didn’t really bother us, though.  After we’d settled and were ready to go, we were given a brief tour of their wine plant and cellar below.

They grow a variety of grapes for their wines, but chiefly grow merlot and sangiovese for their reds.  Their merlot harvest would be taking place tomorrow (today as I’m typing this – good luck, guys!), with the sangiovese harvest occuring in early October.  A culinary aside: they were expecting 20 people to assist with the harvest, and so they had browned quartered duck, and were slow-cooking it in a vat of tomato sauce to feed them tomorrow!

Upon leaving, we were given some of our bread and soufflés, along with a plate of freshly-picked figs Niamh and our guest had tried (and loved!).

All-in-all, it was an amazing day out, and highly recommended if you’re in the area.  Being an agritourismo, they offer B&B and have a lovely pool – which they again invited us to use when we wanted.  One might balk at the price of €150 per person for the class, but that includes manual, apron, all the ingredients, 4 glasses of wine and a 5-course meal (including the salumi course).  We all thought it brilliant value by the end of the instruction.  Well done to our hosts!  As Niamh said, it was one of our best days here ever.

We were told that a kids fair was on in the main and cathedral squares.  It turned out to be a normal Saturday market, with more candy stalls for the kids.  Nice and colourful, and with some shopping to interest the adult partaker.

We stayed in the whole evening.  I had nothing else to eat for pretty much the rest of the day (save for a granita on my way back to the apartment after visiting the fair).

This morning, I took a ciruitous route past the witches rock and was a sweaty mess by the time I got home.

I might visit the pinacoteca today (the art gallery).  I’ll let you know if I do!

Back to La Rosa

Back to La Rosa

This will be a short one!

We lazed about in the morning. For lunch, I put together a selection of meats and some cheese we had in the fridge. Niamh tried out a couple of slices from one of the pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) places. She gave me a bit of a ham and mushroom slice – I found it pretty insipid, to be honest. Niamh seemed happy with them, though.

After Niamh had a nap (and I ‘rested my eyes’), walk to the car and drove to La Rosa, to a discount department store called Magazzini Mangini. Niamh wanted some extra bed clothes, and more pillow cases besides. I just wanted out of the apartment! We got some nice stuff there, and then (of course) went around to see what else might we need. I’m kinda glad we did now.

The black puffer jacket I bought in Volterra last year, has a lot of frayed threads, and it probably won’t be too long before it starts unravelling. In addition, I have a heavy red overcoat, which acts as my walking winter duvet. It’s not very good at keeping out the rain, and has a large rip in the inner lining in one of the sleeves. I got a replacement for both coats, and will probably leave the black one behind in the apartment when we leave.

We stopped off in Conad in Volterra on the way home, to pick up some bits and pieces, including the rest of the ingredients Niamh needed to make a chicken curry.

After another couple of hours of screen-watching, we had the aforementioned curry.  I love Italian food, make no mistake, but you need a break from having the same flavour palette over and over again.  When we were in Hong Kong, we went to an Italian for lunch one afternoon!  So a curry was just the thing, and it was fantastic!

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We slept the sleep of the just after that (and a couple of glasses of wine each!). 

This morning, I took a walk past the Cathedral (among other places).  Niamh told me that they had removed the scaffolding, and looked like they were in the process of tidying up and getting ready to ship the construction gear away.  It could only mean that the Cathedral will open soon – it’s one of the few places we haven’t seen yet.

No mad plans today, although it’s our last day before guests arrive, so we might get something done.  A lot depends on our property manager being able to contact the furniture delivery folks – apparently it’s proving tricky.  Fun times!

See you in the next one.

Race? What Race?!

Race? What Race?!

We went to the butchers and the market yesterday, to pick up some chicken for the next couple of days’ dinners, and some bits and bobs for lunch.  At one of the rotisserie vans, we got a roasted chicken, some chicken kebabs and mixed battered veggies – we had the latter two for lunch.  The kebabs were nice, but the jury’s still out on the veggies.  They were nicer when we had them from the Neopolitan streetfood store in town.

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I wrote a few hundred words in the morning and afternoon, finishing off a tricky chapter, so yay!

While we vegetated for the afternoon, I occasionally heard some cheers coming from Piazza dei Priori (the main square).  I immediately assumed that the motorbikes were finishing their run there and were being cheered on by some folks.  I went out to have a nose, but nope.  It was a wedding.  Feeling a little disappointed (not for them; for me), I went to the view point to see if they were finishing there too.  Again, nope – but I heard them racing somewhere – the engines of these bikes are loud.  I squinted at the road leading from Saline to Volterra, and saw that it was lined with alternating red and white barriers along the bends.  And finally, I saw them racing – but barely.  They went behind a treeline, and then disappeared, not coming anywhere near Volterra itself.  I couldn’t see where the finish line was, so for all intents and purposes, they could simply have fallen into a black hole.

On the plus side, it might mean that the roads aren’t as closed as we had previously thought.

I had set a reminder for myself to check out some musical event being held in the Museum of Sacred Art, but I got there too early, and I suspect it might have been for kids.  So, I went home and grabbed a coffee milkshake from L’Isola del Gusto.  

Later, Niamh reheated the rotisserie chicken, cooked up the veggies we bought at the Saturday market and had put together a lovely little gravy.  We’ve been craving white meat, I guess – and a decent break from pasta dishes.  It may look pretty average, but it was delicious!

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During the evening I heard the strains of a live band playing in the square, while I was enjoying a beer.  I went to check it out that night, but I was too late: they’d almost completely packed everything away by the time I got there.

There is a huge difference in Volterra between Saturdays in August and Saturdays in September.  It was eerily quiet.

I was a hairsbreadth away from getting up at 05:00 to look for a blanket to spread over my legs, such is the sudden change in temperature!  There was no rubbish collection today, and the sky looked a bit bleak, so I took advantage of that, and stayed in bed rather than going for a walk.  I still got up at 07:40, though.  

Instead, Niamh went out and had a cheery jog by the cemetary!  She got caught in a shower too, unfortunately, but she struggled though it – fair play to her, and took a few pics.

No plans today – but with the road seemingly only blocked in one direction, we might be able to do something.

Cheers for now!

An Anniversary Meal at Del Duca

An Anniversary Meal at Del Duca

The title of this blog isn’t only the highlight, but it about the only thing we did all day!  We lounged and watched telly.  Carnival Row has started streaming on Amazon Prime, so we watched the first episode of that.  Seems good so far: excellent visual production quality, writing and acting – just the music is a bit of a let-down.  It sounds like it’s been produced on a cheap synth.

I had pecorino aged in walnut leaves and salami for brekkie, for a change (it’s usually cereal), and I just had two slices of the best cooked prosciutto I’ve ever had.  So by the time our anniversary dinner came (early – our anniversary is actually on monday – 15 years!) around at 20:00, I had a sore belly and head from hunger. 

We were early, so had a wander around the viewpoint first.

We were shown to the garden seating at Del Duca.  It was the first time we’d eaten in that area, and it’s really lovely.  It backs onto 20 metre walls which form part of the boundary of the public park.  We sat, and were offered aperitivi; Niamh had prosecco, I had an Aperol spritz.  We also totally accidentally (not) asked for a bottle of wine each.  We ordered our food, and after a short time an amuse-bouche arrived: a mini bruschetta, topped with a little basil sauce.  I usually don’t do ‘obvious’ tomatoes, but yummied it down anyway – it was excellent.  I forgot to take a photo, I was that hungry!

Next came a series of breads, baked in-house, all of which were excellent, and arrived in time for our first courses.  Niamh had fusilli pasta in a tomato-based minced pork sauce with thinly-sliced green peppers, and I had restaurant-made gnocchi with mushrooms and a salsa verde.  I thought mine was nice, although Niamh wasn’t a fan.  We both agreed that Niamh’s was the winner, though.  It was lovely.

Next came the seconds: Niamh had a fillet of white fish, and I had beef cheek in a rich jus, with an eggplant sauce.  It’s testament to the cooking at Del Duca that we were both jealous of each others’ dish, while also lusting after our own!  The fish was perfectly flakey, and you could have cut the beef with a spoon.

Finally, we ordered dessert.  Niamh’s was a chocolate-bomb style tart, with a melty middle, served in a creme that countained some sort of booze – Niamh wasn’t sure, although she loved it enough to say that she thought she was going to cry it was so nice.  Mine was a dessert of chocolate cremes, both 73% Peruvian chocolate, with tangerine jam filling served with homemade ricotta ice-cream.  Absolutely amazing, and the best dessert I’ve ever had in Volterra, and possibly Italy itself!

The courses were interspersed with friendly service from several waiters, and from the restaurant’s somelier – the daughter of the owner/manager – who also came over to press the flesh.  They have an agriturismo about 5.5km outside town, wherein they produce their own wines (of which we had a bottle each!).  The somelier, being aware that we are undertaking a long-term stay, kindly offered us the use of their swimming pool, which was a lovely gesture.  We also enquired about a cooking class there, and she described a 3-hour affair, during which 4 courses will be cooked (which included breads, stuffed pasta, guinea fowl).  Niamh and I will definitely go, but we are waiting to hear from guests to see if they also want to attend.

On our way out, what was left of our wines was re-corked, and we took them home with us.  A live band were playing outside a restaurant beside the entrance to our apartment – we didn’t stay long.  All-in-all, it was a wonderful evening!

Note, that the pictures of the restaurant seating area were taken towards the end of the night – most tables were full when we first entered.

No walk this morning – I didn’t get up until a little after 09:00.  There will be no blog tomorrow, as we have to pick up another visitor from the airport early in the morning!

Goodbye dosh, plus The Museum of Sacred Art

Goodbye dosh, plus The Museum of Sacred Art

The furniture store in Navacchio still hadn’t been in touch, so we decided to check out the artist’s store and afterwards head into the less interesting looking part of Colle di Val d’Elsa to purchase a single chair.

The artist is a lady, who is wildly effusive about her work, and from looking at her work on a current piece, operates solely from memory or imagination, with no recourse to reference images.  Quite a talent to have.  Her work is relatively inexpensive, but is nonetheless pretty and colourful.  We ended up choosing a wide piece, without a frame, of a bucolic scene with lavendar and poppies, with a farmhouse and cypress in the background, all overseen by magnificently painted clouds in a cerulean sky. Lovely.  

She boggled when we bought it and was extremely grateful – we’d only been in her store maybe 15 minutes.  I’ll slap up a photo when we hang it.  We have to wait ’til the end of the first week until the first piece we bought is framed.  I’ll show you this too when it’s ready and in-place.

Then onwards to Colle.  You might recall that this is our second attempt to visit this furniture store – they had been away on holidays the last time we called out.  We arrived and the store was open.  It was also a great deal warmer than Volterra at about 33 celsius.  We went inside, where it was nicely air-conditioned.  I think we might have been in the place less than 10 minutes when we had the chair selected.  I think it was her first day back after having nearly a month off, so she probably couldn’t believe her luck!  We managed to fit it in the car (the advantages of having a hatchback), and drove home.  I took snaps on the way back.

Once home, we carried the chair between us up to our apartment.  In hindsight, we should have driven into town and deposited the chair much nearer the apartment, but oh well – lesson learned.  The tendons in my arms were sore afterwards, leading to comic instances of shakey-hands when I tried to eat lunch.  Here’s the chair!

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We went to Da Beppino for lunch, where I ordered the pici with lamb sauce, and Niamh sliced grilled beef with a side of greens.  Niamh got what she ordered.  I didn’t.  But I’m kind of glad I didn’t.  Instead I got pici with a sauce of Chianina beef and it was excellent, and proof why I prefer a stock-based ragù to a tomato one.

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That afternoon, I had a little siesta, and then got up to go to the Museum of Sacred Art.  Whether you’re a believer or not, I think it’s an essential visit, just to see the progression of humankind’s skill in painting and sculpture.  I  got there around 17:50 and paid the €5 to get in.  They have a couple of touch-screen sections in Italian and English, explaining a little about their masterwork pieces.

I had a good nose around, and with some of the works, the sculptures in particular, it was hard to believe that many of them were about a half-millenium old.  One in particular, of Pope Linus (the second Pope, who was born in Volterra, and succeeded St. Peter in the role).  The bust is the one in the photos below with the robes in blue lacquer.

I was almost done, when a lady approached saying that they were closing the Museum – but they could give me a few minutes to finish-up.  The closing time was 18:00, and they only gave me the bum’s-rush at 18:25.  So a 30 minute visit should be enough – unless you are a student or historian of art.  I grabbed a few evening shots of Volterra on the way home, and snuck into L’Incontro for a cone of chocolate and coffee gelati (practically the only way you can get me to ingest coffee).

What could be more Italian than spaghetti (or bucatini) and meatballs?  Quite a lot, as it happens, as that dish is an American concoction, and can only be found in Italy in the hokiest of tourist restaurants.  Meh, we were going to have it anyway!  On our last trip to Ikea, we grabbed some frozen meatballs on the way out.  Niamh cooked these up in a tomato sauce with bucatini for dinner.  Rawr!  Those meatballs are worth a purchase, should you happen to find youself in an Ikea.

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My right Achilles is giving out to me a little – most likely from all the hill-climbing – so I’m resting it this morning – therefore, no walk.  My brother is a keen hiker, so I need it to be ok for whatever he might put us through when he visits on Sunday.

Thanks for reading – I hope you enjoyed it!

A Lazy Day, Mostly In

A Lazy Day, Mostly In

It doesn’t bode well for the readers’ interest when most of the photos today are from this morning’s walk.

It took me a while to draft yesterday’s blog, so after I’d showered we didn’t have much time before lunch to head out to Conad – a local supermarket. We need to get replacement trash bags – preferably clear, so the collectors can absolutely confirm what’s in the bags, rather than potentially having to read our scrawl. And if we could get those perfumed bags we got the last time, that would be aces!

Anyway, the walk there was under the midday sun, which sounds like it’s not a good plan, but the temperature (like in Ireland) increases between 14:00 and 15:00 generally, so it was a decent move. It didn’t get us the bags we were looking for, though – but the replacement ones were ok. We also got some stuff for the makings of a chicken and broccoli bake for the evening meal.

On the way back I wanted to go to La Sosta del Priore for one of their amazing burgers, but it was rammed with people, and a queue heading from their door to our street. I don’t really do queues, so instead I went to L’Hamburgheria di Volterra. You walk in, grab a ticky-box menu and tick what you want on your burger (meat, salad, topping, sauce, fries, drinks etc.) and hand it over. I opted for a beef burger, with pecorino, caramelised onions and ketchup, and a side of fries. I took it home, so I could be alone with it.

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The burger was… quite good.  The fries are wonderful – they are made from fresh-cut spuds, and although their look thin, they are rather like what we call back home “chipper chips”.  The problem is the price.  The burger is the same price as the one in La Sosta, but La Sosta’s is definitely the better burger.  The onions and soy mayonnaise that they use has to be tasted to be believed.  Anyhoo – first-world problems!

We were waiting on the call from the furniture place, but it never materialised.  Niamh checked the receipt again, and it said “from the 26th”.  Oy.  Ok, we’ll have to play it by ear.  We were due to go out to an artist’s store in Volterra to see if she had anything we liked for the apartment, but instead I crashed and woke up in the middle of a thunderstorm, with bucketing rain.

So we stayed in again, and Niamh cooked up that chicken and broccoli bake, which tasted nice and gave me a veggie-fix.

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I didn’t even go out that evening – just watched stuff on YouTube and Netflix.  I’ve been remiss about my writing lately, so I hope to get back into that soon.

This morning, I went a similar route on my walk, to the one that took me past the witch’s rock, but stopped off for a bit at the Chiesa di San Giusto Nuovo and took some snaps.

It’s a huge building, and pretty cavernous inside (I couldn’t go in this morning, sadly).  I stopped off at Pasticceria Migliorini to get myself and Niamh a sfogliatella (shell-like, cream-filled pastry) each.  It took a while, because a couple of Germans there seemed to be ordering the entire stock of the shop.  They kindly let me step in, so I could get away.  By that time, I was drenched in sweat, so it was a good idea.  Last time I undertook that route I was absolutely exhausted, but today I felt amazing – my fitness is definitely improving, thankfully!

We might visit that artist’s place today, and weather permitting I might go take in another museum.  Unless we get that call, of course 😉

Ciao!

Soup, and the ‘Ludus Balistris’ – Crossbow Competition

Soup, and the ‘Ludus Balistris’ – Crossbow Competition

A little after breakfast, we went to the Saturday market to buy some fresh veggies for a version of Zuppa alla Contadina (peasant soup).  There weren’t any fresh peasants around, so we had to settle for the vegetarian option!

We got almost all the fresh veg we wanted, except for Cavalo Nero (black cabbage; kale, essentially).  One stall at the market had it, but it was brown and dried around the edges.  Turns out nobody else had it in town either – it’s pretty much out of season.  Yet, the restaurants must get it from somewhere.  I had to go without, which is a shame, as it’s a really important part of the flavour.  Anyway, I got herbs and beans to add to the soup from the nearby supermarket, and went home to make it.

I cooked up a normal starter soffritto (a seasoned stir-fry of celery, carrot, onion), adding fresh rosemary and dried thyme.  After 8-10 mins, I added liquid and a ton of veggies (more of the same, plus potato and zucchini).  I had to add a little store-bought stock to boost the flavour. 

After 40 minutes, I threw the beans into mix, which both coloured and slightly sweetened the liquid.  Normally, you’d have another vessel in which you’d layer sliced tuscan bread and soup multiple times, leave it for a while and reboil it (a ribollita).  I couldn’t wait, so I lined my bowl with bread instead, and ladled soup over that.  It was delicious, but I think could have been so much better with the cavalo nero.  There was enough for the pair of us, and we have 3-4 portions in the freezer too.

We sat around for much of the rest of the day.  Niamh cooked up a dinner of frozen fish (we sometimes have that, and so wanted to try out similar products here – let’s just say it wasn’t Italy’s finest hour!).  I ran out and grabbed a carton of gelato from L’Isola del Gusto.  Yum – will have more of that today.

At around 20:30, after I’d taken shots of the sunset, we headed out to the main square (Piazza dei Priori), as there was a crossbow competition between several Tuscan cities, visits to three of which we have chonicled in this very blog: Volterra, Massa Marittima and Pisa – and a fourth: Lucca – a gorgeous fully-walled town about 90 minutes drive from us.

There was the usual pomp and ceremony as the nobles and teams arrived, and arrayed themselves out of the square.

Forgive the quality of some of these photos – we had a floodlight opposite us during the opening ceremony and iPhone cameras don’t handle them very well.

Each town had 12 contestants, and all would be aiming at a target from about 30-40 meters away, the bullseye of which was only 3cm across.  They had a camera set up, and were able to show the targets on a big screen.  The skill of these people was impressive, as most of them grouped their bolts neatly on the target.  After the first 6, though, it began to get a little tricky, as bolts were not cleared, and the latter contestants found it harder to find space on the target.  In fact, one of Massa’s bolts smacked off another and fell to the ground.  

There was also an individual competition going on between each person, as well as the team competition.

Afterwards, there was a display by the flag wavers (sbandieratori), while the judges attempted to figure out the score.  We went home during this phase, as we were feeling a little tired.  Do you ever get tired from doing nothing?  Isn’t that weird?!  We heard drumming for a while afterwards, and then missed a fireworks display.  I tried to make myself decent and run out to the terrace to catch it, but it was all over after 30 seconds.  There is a metaphor in there somewhere!

More annoyingly, I am going to have to find out who won the competition and let you know later!

This morning I decided to punish myself for not walking yesterday.  I took a very long route to the Co-Op Supermarket, and from there climbed back up to the city.  The first 85% of the route is downhill… the last 15% is murder.  Anyway, I survived!

We know we want to do something today, as the weather seems to have cleared up a lot, but are not quite sure what it will be.  We’ll let you know in the next one!

A Trip to Pisa

A Trip to Pisa

What did we do on Ferragosto? Sweet Ferr Agosto, that’s what we did! We stayed in most of the day. For lunch, Niamh cooked herself eggs. I’m not a fan of ‘in-your-face’ eggs, and so went to La Taverna della Terra di Mezzo and had pici all’anatra (pici with duck sauce). The dish was sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and was very tasty. I noticed that many of the tourist-driven places were still open, so that was good. Most of the more functional stores were closed, though.

In the evening, we marinated the chicken we bought the previous day and cooked up a nifty little stir-fry. Now we just have to find out where we can buy more soy sauce!

The next day, we had to get up early, and I had to skip walking and blogging, as we had to pick up a friend from Pisa airport and take a trip into town to check it out.  We’d been to the cathedral square before, but it was 10 years ago, and we were long overdue a visit.

With the aid of Google Maps, it was easy enough to find the carpark – just a 3-minute walk from the tower.  It was around 10:30, and there were still plenty of spots.

We strolled around the park, looking on bemusedly at the tourists trying to get their trick-shot of the tower.  It’s an impressive site, and obviously worth a visit.  For us it’s about a 75 minute journey by car – not bad at all.

We priced tickets for visiting the three main buildings.  The cathedral is free, but you still have to queue to collect a pass.  The queue time was less than a minute at that time of day.  We also wanted to see the baptistry, and that cost us €5 per person.  There are also other attractions there, which cost you progressively less the more attractions you add to your ticket.  It’s a whopping €18 per person to climb the tower, and you only have a limited time to get up, down and wander.  Cheapskates that we are, we gave it a miss.

The cathedral is a beautiful example of Pisan-Romanesque architecture, and is home to some wonderful works of art.

It was the baptistry’s turn next.  I believe that, on the hour, a singer enters and sings a note, which echoes off the walls, and then sings a harmonising note to accompany themselves.  We didn’t catch that, unfortunately, but you might be able to find it for yourself on YouTube.  Anyway, a couple of us climbed some winding stairs to the upper gallery.

Leaving the hordes behind us, we made for a stroll along the Arno, to look for a restaurant, passing the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Spina along the way.

 I can’t remember the name of the place we stopped at for lunch, unfortunately, but the ladies had salads/platters, while I went for boar with paccheri (think very large maccheroni!).  The food was passable.

Onwards, then, towards Pisa’s commercial centre, and to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II.  I really should have taken a better pic of the man himself.  The area is quite lovely and also worth a little trip if you’re in Pisa.  Remember that many shops may be closed between 13:00 and 16:00, though.

We had a long, very hot walk back to the car afterwards, even with a little gelato taken on-board.  As a result, my arms and neck are a little redder than they ought to be this morning.

Once we got home, we cleaned ourselves up, and set about giving a speed-tour of Volterra to our guest.  We stopped off at Quo Vadis (the Irish bar) for a couple of pints and a light snack, and managed to catch the sunset.  Upon arriving home, we found that a full cover-band was playing live directly under our apartment.  Fun times.  We were too wrecked to listen, unfortunately.

I didn’t sleep terribly well, and about 5 minutes into the walk, I thought that this was going to be a short one, but after a couple of steep slopes I woke up and had a decent stroll.  I was reminded that I was showing our guest yesterday that many of the streets’ flagstones have seashells embedded in them, indicating that the source rock (which is local) was at one time part of a littoral landscape, or even a seabed itself, despite being about 500m above sea-level.  Plate tectonics rock!

It’s market day today, and we’ll saunter down later on and see what we can grab.  No other plans, though.  I want to give my skin a little rest after soaking up so much radiation yesterday, and I know I’m going to crash in the afternoon.  But this is always subject to change!

Cheerio, and see you in the next one!

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

After tidying ourselves up, we went outside to the market to buy sundry knick-knacks for the house. Once my head is protected, it’s not often I actively seek shelter, but while shopping there the sun was scorching, so I ducked out of the light as often as possible. Fortunately, stalls have their own covers and awnings, so it wasn’t too much trouble.

We went to other shops in town to grab some meats and veggies for dinners for the next couple of days. We both agreed that we needed a short break from pasta!

On the way back to the apartment, I grabbed myself a lemon granita from L’Isola del Gusto. It was fab. After a short time in the apartment, I went out to La Sosta del Priore and grabbed a burger there for lunch. It’s not the be-all and end-all to look at, but God did it taste so good. They put it with caramelised onions and a type of mayonnaise that tastes amazing. I will be back for one of those again next week!

We blew much of the rest of the afternoon in the apartment, in an effort to escape the searing sun.  Suddenly, around 17:15, we heard a hullabaloo outside the guest bedroom, which looks down into the main street.  It was a cacophany of drums and trumpets, so we guessed that it must have been something to do with the impending Medieval fair.

We dollied-up as quickly as possible and went to the main square.  There was a wedding there, and I think they had to be given the bum’s rush at 18:00, so the Medieval procession could start.

Anyway, shortly after 18:00, the MC, fully dressed in oldie-worldy garb, started reciting Italian poetry, and announced the lords, ladies and representatives of both the sbandieratori (flag tossers) and balestrieri (crossbow men and women) for Volterra’s 8 contrade (districts), who will be in competition.

Afterwards, there was a very impressive display by the sbandieratori, who are among Italy’s best.

When I get the time/bandwidth, I might stick up a couple of vertical, shaky, iPhone videos 🙂

Once this was all done and the festival declared open, we went home to have a meal.  We’d bought a rotisserie chicken from one of the market’s foodstalls earlier in the day, and so Niamh put together a lovely meal.  She baked rosemary fries (an oxymoron, I know), and they were fantastic.

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While out on the terrace, we heard some music, and so washed the dishes and went out to have a gawk.  We found some medieval buskers.  They were great players, and had a little coterie of people following them about town.  I uploaded the video to Facebook – hopefully you can see it there.  We inadvertently joined them for a little while, as we wanted to go for a drink on Via Gramsci.  We ended up in the Antica Velathri Cafe again.  I had a fab chilled mulled wine there.  I’d give it another go!

We then went back home and vegged out on the couch for a while, before going to bed.

I slept right through ’til 05:30, which is unusual for me, and so headed out early to see if I could find if any more stuff had been set up for the festival.

It’s supposed to hit 35+ celsius today, so I, for the first time in a long time, will be showing off some ankle and calf in very fetching shorts.  We’ll probably spend a lot of time outdoors today, so I expect tomorrow’s blog will be very media-heavy – apologies in advance!  We’re both really looking forward to this!

Roll out those days…

Roll out those days…

Nat King Cole once sang “Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer…”. I guess two out of three ain’t bad, to quote another song. Yes, we had a slow day yesterday.

After screen-watching, we went to the Co-Op to buy food for the next couple of days, and refil our Chariot of Fire… well, it’s more a like a smouldering dustcart… with fuel. Fuel is damned expensive in Italy. In Volterra it’s about 20% more expensive on average than it is in Ireland.

We got prezzemolo (flat-leafed parsley) and peperoncini (chilies) for tonight, and stock cubes for future attempts and making Zuppa alla Volterrana or risotti/orzotti (the latter is like a risotto, but it’s made with pearl barley). Amongst other stuff, I also bought some deodorant, which I wore for the first time this morning for my walk – in order to prevent me being chased by flies. For a while I couldn’t put my finger on what it smelled like to me – then I had a revelation. It’s like the spice mix you get in digestif liqueurs – specifically Amaro or Jägermeister. Er, lovely?

About an hour after dropping shopping back up to the apartment, we went out to La Mangiatoia for pizza and beer!

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I had a 4-cheese and Niamh a cappriciosa, both were lovely – the second-best 4-cheese I’ve had here (Ombra della Sera Pizzeria being the best so far).  The Moretti were lovely as always.  They have large 660ml bottles of beer over here – slightly larger than your pint bottle of Bulmers (568ml). I’m not a huge beer drinker, but Moretti hits the spot.  A Sardinian beer, Ichnusa, is pretty good too.  But if anyone who lives local is reading this, could you please tell me where I could find some cider?!  I can’t believe it’s not popular over here, given the weather in summer!

Afterwards, we had a stroll around town and got some gelato from L’Isola del Gusto.  I got nutella & marscapone, and nocciola (hazlenut) – the first was great, but their hazlenut is a.m.a.z.i.n.g.  So creamy.

And so back the apartment, pretty much until the sun went down.  It took us a while to work up a hunger after the pizza, but at around 20:30, I rustled up my first all’olio, aglio e peperoncino dish (oil, garlic and chili respectively).  We had bucatini to use up, so we used that instead of spaghetti – but ideally you should use spaghetti.  I had a dread fear of over-salting since my last dish, and so didn’t salt the ingredients in the pan.  The result needed salt, but that was easily recified after serving it up.  It was yummy and I was well-chuffed!  Certainly better than I’ve ever had it in Ireland.

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Niamh stayed in, while I went outside in search of free entertainment and a shnakey pint.  They had a band playing jazzed-up folk and avante-garde pieces in the Roman amphitheatre.  They were pretty good, so I hung around for a little while.  

This moring I went on a shorter walk (about 2.75km) around, and just outside, the town.  In the cathedral square, a bunch of guys were unloading more props for the medieval festival, and the market was just about to kick off in the Vallebona carpark.   Bleecher seating was out in Piazza dei Priori, presumably for the performances of the sbandieratori (those who practice the art of throwing and juggling large, medieval flags).  They will be performing this Sunday, so I hope to get pics or movies.  For the very first time, I also walked through the graffiti-lined shortcut that cuts out an entire corner of town.

We were planning to go to Massa Marittima today, but with the market in the main carpark, those put-out residents are on-the-prowl for handy parking.  So if we left our spot, it could mean we’d have to spend a lot of time either finding/waiting for a spot, or parking in the arse-end of nowhere and having a difficult walk back to town.  We have tons of time, and so can go next week.

Thanks a lot!